Tuesday, 15 February 2011

...staring capitals, inch high

(I have my 'serious face' on today.) When I was in Prague in December, I saw a small memorial on St Wenceslas Square to a 20-year old student called Jan Palach, who, in 1969, burned himself to death in protest at the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

I was too young to be aware at the time and we didn't cover that era in history, so there's no way I should even know the name and what he did. But I do.

The reason is a poem: Jan Palach, by Jane Mapstone. We must have only read it in passing at school but I've never forgotten parts of it:

Now
I am only a thought in your mind
A headline on the paper of your thoughts
By tomorrow I will be relegated to a side column
And then I will disappear.

....

But in spite of the fact
That today you are moved by the staring capitals, inch high,
You don't understand the enormity,
The reality
That made me
Twenty one
Burn
Myself
To
Death

...

(These are excerpts - a full transcript is below)

It isn't what most people might consider a 'great' poem - but maybe it is: in trying to find out more about it, I realised that it had a similar effect on other people too. It was written in 1969, by a 15-yr old school girl - an immediate and moving response to news she must have read about or perhaps seen on television. (Her mother comments on it here.)

The poem is right in some ways about newspapers - what is urgent and horrifying today is soon shoved in great yawning filing cabinets along with everything else under 'urgent' and 'horrifying'. But a poem can be more difficult to shake off - no-one ever asked me to learn it, it wasn't on the curriculum, but the exact words have stayed with me 30 years.

I feel I should write a rousing final line here before I leave you to the poem/ comments/ more cheery next blog. Something about the power of 'the right words in the right order' and how a poem is like a picture - reaching the parts something more prosaic can't reach (no dear - prosaic, not Prozac). I'm struggling to find the right words - but then, that's the point isn't it?

And all of this relates to an announcement being made on this blog tomorrow... watch this space!


Jan Palach

by Jane Mapstone

Now
I am only a thought in your mind
A headline on the paper of your thoughts
By tomorrow I will be relegated to a side column
And then I will disappear.
And maybe, in a year from today
Some line in the 'In Memoriam' will commemorate my death
But that's all
And in five years you will hear my name and think
'Now who the hell was he?"
And your kids will learn my name for one of their history tests.

But in spite of the fact
That today you are moved by the staring capitals, inch high,
You don't understand the enormity,
The reality
That made me
Twenty one
Burn
Myself
To
Death
You can't understand
You don't think about
The feelings that went through my body
As I poured the petrol over me
As I felt its stickiness running like blood down my arms
Down my legs
And you can't know
That with all my body
All my mind
Crying 'NO! NO!'
I found somewhere the necessity
To strike that match
To see it licking away at my clothes
To feel it biting away at my flesh
Consuming me
A person
Me
Watching it as though I was sat at
the back of a cinema, watching a film,
Completely detached
Watching me dying
And you'll never know
That before the clouds of laughing smoke, and whirling pain
Merged into darkness
I thought that
Maybe I was wrong.
Now
I am only a thought in your mind
A line in some volume of memory
I don't exist
I have no substance, flesh or feeling
Only decaying bones and decaying dreams
I died
You don't understand that
But think of this
I could have thrown stones and cracked your windows
I could have fought your policemen, burnt your cars
And made a public nuisance of myself
To gain attention

But what I did I can't do more than once
If you ignore it now then it is finished
If you just relegate me to your history books
Then there can be no point in what I did
No point. No reason
In burning myself to death
And I was wrong.


8 comments:

  1. 'the exact words have stayed with me 30 years.'

    You read it in infants' school?

    I've just written another poem this morning. You appear to have infected me with a bug.

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  2. I was the same age as Jane Mapstone, in 1969. I was also glued to the news of the Soviet occupation. This poem is an extraordinary example of how poets can give a voice to those who might otherwise go unheard.

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  3. Dave - erm, yes (*coughs*)- I was a child prodigy!

    Martin - Yes, if there were only some way to bring together topical poems that capture a moment like this!

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  4. Couldn't wait until tomorrow. I've published my new poem today.

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  5. A remarkable poem, the way she imagines so deep into what Galach chose to do, and how it would be perceived, remembered, forgotten. Interesting that Mapstone has gone on to write children's books (among other things). I can certainly see why this stayed with you.

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  6. It's tomorrow, where's the announcement?

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  7. Rainy - Yes, it certainly made me remember his NAME (*coughs pointedly*)

    Dave - *sigh* I didn't say what time tomorrow - and the time was 9am. It's there now!

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  8. I vividly remember Jane's poem being read out on BBC Radio 4's 'Any Answers' in 1969 - she had clearly written in with it. I have never forgotten its poignancy - especially during my own visit to Prague during the still dark days of 1981.

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